Sunday, August 26, 2012

That bumblebee is the bomb!

"Bombus impatiens" that is. This furry little "bombus" or bumble bee was buzzing around a stand of purple coneflowers in the meadow at Shawnee State Park...

A fuzzy yellow and black bumble bee, Bombus impatiens, hovers over a purple coneflower before lighting to sip nectar.
A fuzzy, round bumble bee hovers over its next nectar source, a vibrant purple coneflower. The bumble's loud buzzing was persistent...and one of the wonderful sounds of summer.

I don't know a lot about bumble bees, so that evening I got out my "Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America" to see what species this bumble was. From the photo and description, I'm deducing Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens). Bombus impatiens' field marks include a thorax covered in yellow pile (or fuzz) with a small bald spot on top, and an abdomen with only the first segment covered in yellow pile...

Common Eastern Bumble Bee--only the first segment on the abdomen is yellow, the rest is fuzzy and black
In this photo, it looks like just the first segment of the bee's abdomen is covered in the yellow fuzz, which identifies it as a Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens). If the second segment was also covered in the yellow fuzz, it would be an American Bumble Bee (Bombus pensylvanicus).  The Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) is one of the most common bumble bees in our area and in the eastern United States. 
A pollen basket (or "corbicula") is a smooth surface on the hind leg of a female bumble bee or honey bee. Males do not have pollen baskets. Bumble bees and honey bees use pollen baskets to carry pollen back to the nest. Click here for an earlier post that explains how pollen baskets work. Click here for other ways to tell female and male bumble bees apart. Another difference between a male and female bumble bee is the stinger. Females have them, males don't. Unlike honey bees, who die after stinging because they have a barbed stinger that is left in the victim, bumble bees can sting more than once because their stinger is smooth. Click here for more info on a bumble bee's stinger.

Ocelli (three primitive eyes) on a bumble bee
...let's zoom in a bit to look at the ocelli (three primitive eyes) on the top of his head. These eyes help the bumble bee see ultraviolet light, and are also used for stability while flying by helping the bee detect the horizon. To read more about ocelli, click here. To see the ocelli on a grasshopper (from an older post), click here. 

Hard sheath for a bumble bee's tongue (Bombus impatiens)
Bumble bees have long tongues encased in a hard sheath. The tongue is reddish, and the tip is hairy and feathery. This modification helps the bumble bee lap up nectar. It is not a sucking tube like a butterfly's proboscis. (Source: "The Natural History of Bumblebees, a Sourcebook for Investigations," by Carol A. Kearns and James D. Thomson, pg 30.) For a close-up photo of the feathery tongue, click here.

Bees in the late summer sun 
Drone their song 
Of yellow moons 
Trimming black velvet, 
Droning, droning a sleepysong.
                    --Carl Sandburg

Fuzzy hair on a bumble bee are actually setae
The yellow pile looks as soft as a bunny's fur, but the fuzzy "hairs" are actually finely branched setae. The branching helps pollen stick to the hairs, which function more like our skin in that they contain sensors that let the bee feel wind speed and direction, or detect chemicals. For more on bumblebee hair, click here. For a quick overview of the differences between mammalian hair (keratin) and insect "hair" or setae (chitin), click here

Bumble bees are so big, round and fat it seems improbable they could fly, but they do!  Here this Bombus impatiens hovers over a purple coneflower.
Bumble bees are so big, round and fat it seems improbable they could fly with their delicate wings, but they do!  Here this Bombus impatiens hovers over a purple coneflower. She soon lit on the orange spikes to lap nectar, one of her main food sources. Bumble bees eat pollen and drink nectar. They have no other food source.

A head-on view of a bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) as it aps nectar from a purple coneflower. The three ocelli (primitive eyes) look like rivets put there to hold on a hard mask!
South winds jostle them--
Bumblebees come--
Drink, and are gone--
--Emily Dickinson

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Storm," the Barn Owl, makes a cameo appearance...

"Storm," the Barn Owl, is a teaching owl at RAPTOR, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. RAPTOR is a non-profit organization committed to the preservation of birds of prey. RAPTOR members rehabilitate injured birds of prey until they can be released back into the wild. Unfortunately, some have permanent damage and can't hunt or survive on their own, so they stay on at RAPTOR as educational birds. Last autumn I  photographed many of their resident birds, and Storm was one of them. Storm was admitted to RAPTOR on June 26, 2007 as a nestling with a severe left wing soft tissue wound. The owl's left wing had been caught in the seam of a barn and was not able to be saved. Since then, Storm has become one of the most photographed and beloved of their educational birds (click here for all past RAPTOR, Inc. posts).

Whenever I post photos of captive raptors, I always make sure to let artists know they can use the photos as references for their paintings, so I was especially happy when I heard from the very talented and interesting Virginia painter Mary Chiaramonte. Mary put our beautiful Storm in one of her paintings and sent me a photo of it that I could post. If you look at the shed, Storm is perched on the right side of the roof...

"Trespass" by Mary Chiaramonte--a painting featuring "Storm" the Barn Owl!
"Trespass" by Mary Chiaramonte
(Storm the Barn Owl is perched on the right side of the roof...looking very Stormy! I love the night-feel in this painting.)
Mary's paintings are multi-faceted and very interesting. I can't stop looking at them! They are made up of layer upon layer of emotion. You'll have to take your time and study them. Click here to see more of her paintings. Thank you, Mary for sending me the photo! If you are interested in keeping up with Mary's work, you can "friend " her on Facebook because she posts new paintings there:

Since Storm has been made famous in Mary's painting, I thought I would include a few more photos of our gorgeous star. These are all great reference photos for artists and painters focusing on cryptic feather patterns, wing shape, and close-ups of those amazing talons and feet...

Cryptic camouflage patterns in a Barn Owl's plumage -- "Storm" from RAPTOR, Inc.
Barn Owl feathers have beautiful cryptic colors and patterns to help camouflage it.
Barn Owl profile -- "Storm" from RAPTOR, Inc.
...a profile shot of Storm the Barn Owl with a bit of "eyeshine" triggered by the morning sunlight reflecting off the tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer of cells behind the retina that helps owls and other nocturnal animals see at night (click here for more about eyeshine and the tapetum lucidum).  
Extended wing of a barn owl -- "Storm" from RAPTOR, Inc.
Storm in the classic Count Dracula pose...
Close-up of a wing of a barn owl -- "Storm" from RAPTOR, Inc.
The silent flight of nocturnal owls has intrigued humans forever. It's achieved because of a unique adaptation to the trailing feathers on the back end of the wing. The leading edge (primary feathers) are serrated, which helps with stability, but the trailing feathers are fringed and tattered and account for the silence by breaking up the sound waves generated as air flows over the top of the wings and forms downstream wakes (source: National Geographic, "Owls' Silent Flight May Inspire Quiet Aircraft Tech," by John Roach. Click here for the complete article).    
Wing feather details of a barn owl -- "Storm" from RAPTOR, Inc.

Head-on shot of a Barn Owl's face -- "Storm" from RAPTOR, Inc.
These large, forward facing eyes allow for good stereoscopic vision, which helps owls judge distances. Owls have the most forward facing eyes of all birds...and the flat face allows the eyes to be spaced as widely apart as possible to increase the stereoscopic effect. It's easy to see where the nickname, "Old Flatface" came from. For more on owl eyesight, click here.

Camouflage plumage patterns of a Barn Owl -- "Storm" from RAPTOR, Inc.

Close up of a Barn Owl's feet and talons -- "Storm" from RAPTOR, Inc.
The strong, long and sharp talons on owls' and other raptors'  feet can do a lot of damage and set them apart from other birds. Birds of prey have a locking mechanism that keeps the toes locked around their prey without having to use muscles to remain contracted. Click here for more specifics on owls' talons.  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Holy Cow...a Cicada Killer Wasp!

We saw our first ever Cicada Killer Wasp this weekend. Rick watched him hanging out by the ash tree and called me over to take a look. When I caught sight of him "Yikes" was the only thing I could say. He was a big wasp. Really big. Almost two-inches-long big. How on earth had we never seen one was huge! The wasp was lapping up sap near the base of our dying ash tree (the same tree from this post) and didn't seem to mind us looking on. We watched it for a while, but then I ran in and got my "Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America." It only took a few minutes to identify him--it's not hard to find a wasp that's close to two-inches long...

Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius sp.)--a very large wasp measuring almost 2 inches
Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius sp.)
This looks like an average-sized wasp, but when you consider he was about 30 feet up the tree, and I could still focus in on him, you start to get an idea of his size. He's nice and colorful too...with orange-ish legs and reddish-eyes, not to mention the yellow and black stripes on his abdomen.

Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius sp.)--a very large wasp measuring almost 2 inches
...but don't get too worried. These gentle wasps are not aggressive. The males have no stingers, and the females really only like to sting Cicadas. They will sting humans, though--but only if they feel threatened or you try to hold them down.
Cicada Killer wasps live up to their name. The females are hunters, and when they find a cicada, they sting it, paralyzing it with venom. They then carry (either flying or walking) the paralyzed cicada to a burrow where they have dug tunnels that end in cells (up to 16 cells per burrow or nest). They drag the cicada to one of the cells and lay a single egg on it. The egg hatches out and the grub-like larvae eats the cicada alive as it grows. (Source, "Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America," by Eaton and Kaufman, pg 336.) I spent some time watching two wasps fly around in our tree, but never did witness a cicada take-down.

Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius sp.)--a very large wasp measuring almost 2 inches
Yellow markings on the black abdomen of a Cicada Killer Wasp.
Cicada Killers like to build their nests in loose soils. The drought has created a few sandy spots on some of our hills in the front yard. We think we know where one of the burrows is. I read the wasps can displace up to a pound of soil while excavating the tunnels and cells, and the holes often look like they could belong to an animal. I'm going to watch for more and hopefully get some better photos.

Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius sp.)--a very large wasp measuring almost 2 inches
The Cicada Killers loved the sap leaking from our ash tree. Adults live on nectar and pollen from flowers...and sap from trees. They don't eat the cicadas, only the grub-like larvae do. 

exoskeleton of the cicada nymph after molting
The exoskeleton of the cicada nymph. I wonder if this cicada survived after molting, or if the Cicada Killer got him!
To learn more about Cicada Killer Wasps, click here for information from the University of Kentucky.